What are fungi?
Fungi is a part of the eukaryotic organisms class and can range from microorganisms like mould and yeast to more commonly known varieties like mushrooms. In 2017, there were between 2.2 million and 3.8 million different species within the fungi kingdom. Fungi inhabit almost every location on planet earth, yet mostly unnoticeable with the vast majority of this unique species living beneath the surface.
Why are fungi important?
Fungi is crucial to all life on earth by helping retain healthy soils and decomposing natural organisms like food. Fungi like mushrooms are often thought of as a delicious ingredient in a meal or a pest growing in the yard. However, what if I said this miraculous organism might just be the solution to cleaning up the planet from toxic rare metals and oil spills while becoming the future ingredient in constructing environmentally conscious concrete, plastic and more. Fungi may have a goofy name, but their current and potential impact to change the world for the better is no joke.
The fungi potential:
Fungi could be used for many purposes like concrete, plastics, insulation, food, etc.
Back in 2014, an architecture firm known as ‘The Living’ located in New York City built a twelve-meter high tower made from 100% mycelium (vegetative part of fungus). According to an architect of the firm, construction material built from fungi was very inexpensive and could be grown in a variety of conditions, making this practice financially viable for most and equally as convenient. Today, the industrial concrete sector contributes to 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions with the potential to eradicate this detrimental issue with simply…fungi.
Additionally, organic materials left after harvesting fields in agriculture are often burned each year, greatly contributing to air pollution in countries like India.
With fungi, there is a much greener approach. A recent experiment placed crop residue seeded with mycelium into a mould and found that within a week, the mycelium had consumed all that was left of the agricultural waste, forming a strong, low-carbon brick with brilliant insulation properties.
So, could mycelium and agricultural waste soon be the planet consciousness insulation for millions of homes and buildings?
A company located in Green Island, New York named ‘Ecovative’ is also experimenting with fungi to generate many other products like…bacon!
The hero behind what makes this possible is called ‘aerial mycelium’ which is grown in vertical farms from agricultural waste and fungi (mycelium). Once completely formed, the aerial mycelium looks like a large marshmallow and can be finely sliced into strips, seasoned and cooked, providing the taste of traditional pig bacon.
With the same protein content, high levels of fibre, 100% plant-based, zero processed ingredients and one-fifth the fat content of conventional bacon, this is undoubtedly a win-win situation for the public and pigs.
Fungi certainly have their place in the biotechnology field with numerous ways we could use this magnificent resource for the better. However, their brilliance doesn’t end here with the capabilities to help drastically minimise the impacts of one of the greatest human-caused environmental problems in the past and present.
Cleaning up oil spills, rare metals and radioactive substances:
On the 26th of April, 1986 in Chernobyl, a huge and immediate rush of power during a systems test shattered reactor four and produced massive amounts of radioactive material into the environment. To this day, Chernobyl is uninhabited by humans and will continue this way for thousands more years. However, fungi commonly known as ‘Cryptococcus neoformans’ has shown to contain genetic properties that allow them to absorb large amounts of radioactive material. By planting this organism, the fungi can consume a large quantity of hazardous content and once the job is done, they can be removed, burned and disposed of safely with much healthier soil in the surrounding environment.
Similar experiments have been conducted near Russian industrial sites with astonishing results. They found that certain fungi were able to collect up to forty times more copper and nickel than the surrounding soil.
In addition to radioactive and rare metal substances, fungi also provide a solution to oil spills. Another experiment performed in Mexico tested marine fungi to see whether the fungi could take down oil as well.
They found that the fungi were capable of breaking down one of the main hazardous materials in the oil known as ‘Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons’ (PAH’s). The fungi used specific enzymes to break down the oil and collect the carbon, allowing the fungi to feed on the toxic substance.
Not all experiments in radioactive, rare metal and oil collection were successful, however, fungi could certainly help out in many situations when trying to combat largely difficult issues like these as well as in a far more environmentally friendly way.
The existence of life on earth:
While fungi have become useful in cleaning up our detrimental mistakes, we mustn’t forget to thank this miraculous organism for creating this habitable planet for life to commence in the first place.
Fungi is responsible for extracting nutrients from rocks which are then deposited into the soil, producing nutrient-rich soil helping plants thrive. With thriving plants comes additional oxygen (O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), generating life on planet earth.
Scientists believe fungi was key to the beginning of life on our planet by building the oxygen-rich world we live in today from the creation of plants 400 million to
500 million years ago. Fungi are one of the very few organisms on earth that can break down a component found in any organism that rots after dying called ‘lignin’, allowing fungi to decompose natural organisms.
Without fungi, organisms wouldn’t decay resulting in a nutrient-low planet and ending
the production of life.
Today, the planet is choking on our plastic mess with over one million plastic bottles bought every minute alone as the crisis continues to worsen. Currently, hundreds of thousands of animals die from pollution annually with single-use masks causing even greater headaches for the planet.
The obvious solution to this issue is to simply scrap plastic products entirely. However, with cheap manufacturing costs, limited dedication to eliminating plastic and low recycling rates, this is a far off dream.
Nevertheless, when there are fungi, there is hope.
Recently students from Yale University found a mushroom species located in the Amazon rainforest called ‘Pestalotiopsis microspore’, capable of consuming plastic waste. The fungi can amazingly survive off plastic alone and transform one of plastics main ingredients called ‘polyurethane’ into organic matter. In Addition, Pestalotiopsis can live in locations where oxygen is limited making it a suitable option for growing and living in landfills in many places around the globe.
Who knows, maybe one of our greatest issues around the plastic crisis could be solved with Pestalotiopsis growing in and around our landfills?
Landfills were once stagnant, with trash laying for hundreds of years, but with Pestalotiopsis we could potentially watch our dumping grounds become smaller as time passes, saving space, pollution and lives.
Fungi are arguably the most miraculous organism on earth, providing us with the existence of life, cleaning up our toxic mistakes and drastically slashing carbon dioxide emissions with environmentally conscious products. Fungi are often associated with an ingredient in a meal or a hazardous monster growing in the yard, although their uses are so much broader than what appears on the surface.
Fungi provided us with life to begin with and now they are acting as our greatest partners in combating the largest issue this planet has faced.
If we’re not thankful for fungi, we shouldn’t be thankful for anything.